‘Bat-Manga’ is an exhilarating pop-culture expedition
By Chip Kidd with Geoff Spear and Saul Ferris (Pantheon Books, hardcover $60, softcover $29.95)
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In one story from “Bat-Manga!” — the comics compendium lovingly edited by graphic-design rock star Chip Kidd — an already mutating scientist offers himself up for further research, imploring the Dark Knight to kill him should the experiment go awry. When the conflicted Caped Crusader fails to put the kibosh on the doc’s catastrophic transformation, his cowardice throws the fate of the world into peril. Ultimately, “The Man Who Quit Being Human” is a moral tale of suicide as sacrifice, a metaphor for science as caution and an allegory for Nippon’s shell-shocked lessons of WWII.
And yet “Bat-Manga!” is not the weighty, thinky “Secret History of Batman in Japan” that its subtitle suggests. Instead, it’s an exhilarating pop-cultural artifact: This here is an alternate Batman, as interpreted in the ’60s through an Asian filter. Kidd & Co. — photographer Geoff Spear, co-researcher Saul Ferris and translator Anne Ishii — have essentially renovated illustrator Jiro Kuwata’s short-lived, long-forgotten Japanese take on the title, which hit the East in the wake of the campy TV series’ international popularity. (Kidd and his publisher, Pantheon, have recently been criticized for the absence of Kuwata’s name on the cover and spine. Though this oversight is indeed debatable, it should also be noted that “Bat-Manga!” feels like a radical packaging of Kuwata’s work and that the creator is interviewed and given multiple credits within its pages.)
The fact that their collection, chiefly assembled from Kidd and Ferris’ EBay vigilance, is admittedly spotty, merely lends more exoticism to the collection. Take our hero’s dalliance with the dastardly, if fabulously named, Go Go Magician. Trapped in a block of ice, Batman fires up his “safe-cracking hand torch” to melt his way out of the chamber. One glitch: The torch’s flame sucks up all the oxygen before he can burn his way out. With the next issue nowhere to be found, it simply ends there with Batman like we’ve never seen him — foolish, collapsed, facing certain death.
What emerges is a childlike discovery of the material enabled by Spear’s interstitial snapshots of vintage imported Bat-toys, as well as Kidd’s wondrous knack for playing with size, texture and color — techniques that elicit lingering gazes at the images at hand. Here, he zooms into every weathered pore of Kuwata’s propulsive, now sepia-toned artwork as Batman throws down with sideshow villains like the hideous Dr. Faceless, the skeletal Lord Death Man — not to mention Professor Gorilla, the cerebrally advanced primate who unleashes a can of whoop-ass on humanity in retaliation for crimes against the animal kingdom! Never mind the absurdist set-ups or ridiculously frill-less dialogue (such as the preponderance of the parting shot, “Mwa ha ha ha!”), these are pulp-fiction foes who maim and dismember and kill. And when push comes to shove, so will this cool and unusual Batman.
– Nisha Gopalan
All images courtesy of Pantheon Books